Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

A review

Racism is a difficult topic for white people to talk about. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo helps us understand why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, and how that discomfort serves to reinforce white supremacy. And, in the end, DiAngelo challenges us to confront our own racism and to build stamina to fight against it.

Although there are many incredibly valuable lessons in the book, there are two that stand out for me. First is DiAngelo’s takedown of the “good/bad binary” paradigm. This paradigm posits that harboring any racism is “bad” and because I am a good person, I cannot be racist (Not racist == good / Racist == bad). But this paradigm keeps white people from engaging seriously in understanding racism:

Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism. The good/bad binary made it effectively impossible for the average white person to understand—much less interrupt—racism.

As a white person, it is necessary to abandon the “good/bad binary” so that I can accept that I can be a “good person” while still existing in — and benefit from — a society that is deeply racist.

DiAngelo’s second lesson is that white fragility serves to advance white supremacy. In essence, one of the structural advantages of whiteness is that the phrase “race doesn’t matter” can only be true for a white person. As a white man, there are no meaningful threats to my physical, emotional, or professional status by existing in the United States. This is not true for people of color, who cannot avoid race or racism. Indeed, we generally—and perversely—place the burden of combatting racism on people of color. What DiAngelo meticulously demonstrates is that white fragility is a defense mechanism for white people, so that we can deny that race matters and erase the lived experiences of people of color.

Although I am still attempting to internalize many of DiAngelo’s other lessons, the fact is that White Fragility is an act of generosity for white folks like me. DiAngelo shows how our internalized defense mechanisms serve to stunt our growth and ability to forge meaningful relationships with people of color. She offers specific guidance and clues about where we might explore our own unexamined biases and prejudices. And she gives us an opportunity to learn to build the stamina necessary to proceed with integrity in a society in which there is work to be done.